Introduction to Shaarei Yosher

I recently had the honor of translating the introduction to Rav Shimon Shkop‘s Shaarei Yosher. My love of this piece is only partly because Rav Shimon was the rebbe of my rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz.

In a few short pages, Rav Shimon defines holiness, gives the key to happiness and contentment, explains the path to chessed (lovingkindness), and the relationship between mussar and the rest of Torah. His answers to these questions are based on ideas we as products of today’s culture, can very well relate to; for example, chessed is defined in terms of a healthy notion of one’s own value, not an abnegation of self.

In case you missed the earlier links, the document is here (starting in English at one end, and a scan of the Hebrew starting from the other), and the Wikipedia page on Rav Shimon, here.

Holiness and Carrying the Yoke with the Other

(The following is based on a class I gave on Shabbat at Mussar Kallah IX, and is the further development of a number of ideas R’ Gil Student and I wrote for Mesuqim MiDevash.)

The question of holiness is central to the title phrase of the sedra of Qedoshim. “Qedoshim tihyu hi Qadosh Ani – Be qadosh [holy, sacred] for I Am Qadosh.” (Vayiqra 19:2) But what is qedushah?

Translating it as “sanctity” or “holiness” falls short as: (1) the meaning of the English is itself not too clear, (2) nor are we sure that they truly capture the connotations of the Hebrew original.

The Sifra[1], commenting on our verse, writes “’qedoshim tihyu’: perushim tihyu – ‘be holy’: you shall be separated”.

Along these lines, Rashi understands the verse as referring to the list of laws of intimacy with which the previous sedra concluded, as well as other transgressions. And he gives other examples where such a separation is associated with the concept of qedushah.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) writes “make yourself qadosh with that which is permitted to you” by refraining from the permitted.

It would seem that they are both defining qedushah as separation. But there is also a real difference. Rashi discusses things that are specifically prohibited. The Ramban is quite specifically speaking about separating oneself from things that are not the topic of a specific prohibition – there is no ban on the action, but rather the action isn’t in concert with being a holy person.

A parallel division exists in other discussions about qedushah.

In parashas Sheqalim, the portion discussing the mitzvah for each person to donate a 1/2 sheqel coin to the Temple (also counted for a census), we are told to take “half a sheqel of a sheqel haqodesh”. The Ramban (ad loc) explains that these sheqalim were considered sacred because they were used for holy purposes. The funds gathered by this census in the first year were donated towards the construction of the Tabernacle, other “sheqel haqodesh” were used for buying offerings and utensils for the Tabernacle or Temple, or for redeeming a first-born. Along similar lines, Rabbeinu Bachya (ad loc) writes, “Since all mitzvos are the core of holiness and some mitzvos require this currency,” the currency takes on a holiness corresponding to its use.

The Ramban continues, Hebrew is called leshon haqodesh – the holy language – because it was and continues to be used for holy purposes. It is the language in which G-d said “yehi or – let there be light”, in which He gave us the Torah and the Tanakh was written, the language in which our ancestors were named, etc…

However, the Ramban (Nachmanides) notes that the Rambam (Maimonides) has a very different understanding of why Hebrew is called “the holy language”. In his Guide for the Perplexed (3:8), Rambam explains that Hebrew is called sacred because it has no specific words for uniquely male and female body parts, for the acts that lead to conception of a child, nor does it have precise terms for the various bodily emissions and excretions.

Rabbi Shimon Romm [2] explains this dispute between Rambam and Ramban as being a fundamental disagreement over the nature of qedushah, holiness.

According to Ramban (Nachmanides), holiness comes from being committed for a purpose. When currency is used for a mitzvah it becomes sacred and when a language is used to create the world and convey the Torah it becomes sanctified.

According to the Rambam (Maimonides), however, holiness is not due to a positive usage but to a lack of diminution of its purity. A language is inherently sacred and only loses that status when it contains less than holy words. Presumably, the Rambam would explain that the sheqel haqodesh is called holy because, as the Ramban himself suggests at the beginning of his comments, the sheqel coins used in the Torah were entirely pure, lacking all dilution. This purity of content, rather than its sanctity of use, is what earned for these coins the title of qadosh. R’ Romm continued that it would seem that the Rashi we looked at agrees with the Rambam. By not engaging in prohibited action, one lives up to “be holy”.

Someone in the audience when I presented this material at Mussar Kallah IX suggested another way to understand the dispute. It could be that both sides agree in how they define qedushah — holiness. Rather, they disagree about the nature of the mitzvah. Rashi sees the obligation “qedoshim tihyu — be holy” as one to protect the holiness we already have; not to descend the ladder, so to speak. And therefore it’s accomplished by not tainting oneself with sin. The Ramban sees it as a duty to increase one’s holiness, to climb the ladder, and therefore to commit beyond what would otherwise be mandatory.

When a Mussarist wants to understand a middah, the first place to turn is a genre of mussar texts that are organized by middah. Most famously Orchos Tzadiqim and Mesilat Yesharim (Ways of the Righteous, and Path of the Just, respectively.) The last chapter of Mesilat Yesharim (ch. 26) discusses Qedushah. To quote Rav Shraga Simmons’ translation, in part:

Note the distinction between one who is Pure and one who is Holy. The earthy actions of the first are necessary ones, and he is motivated by necessity alone, so that his actions escape the evil in earthiness and remain pure. But they do not approach Holiness, for it were better if one could get along without them. One who is Holy, however, and clings constantly to his God, his soul traveling in channels of truth, amidst the love and fear of his Creator -such a person is as one walking before God in the Land of the Living, here in this world. …

In fine, Holiness consists in one’s clinging so closely to his God that in any deed he might perform he does not depart or move from the Blessed One, until the physical objects of which he makes use become more elevated because of his having used them, than he descends from his communion and from his high plane because of his having occupied himself with them. This obtains, however, only in relation to one whose mind and intelligence cling so closely to the greatness, majesty and Holiness of the Blessed One that it is as if he is united with the celestial angels while yet in this world….

According to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (the “Ramchal”), a focus on separation is more associated with purity than with holiness. Avoiding unnecessary entanglements with the physical “so that his actions escape the evil in earthiness and remain pure.” Qedushah is clinging to G-d.

Is this a shift in definition from that offered by the Sifra and discussed through the next millennium by Rashi, Rabbeinu Bachya, Nachmanides and Maimonides?

Rav Shimon Shkop (Sha’arei Yosher, introduction) argues that the Sifra’s comment cannot be an actual definition. He points out that separation as a definition would fail for the verse’s next clause – “for I [Hashem] am Qadosh”. There is no purpose or meaning in Hashem restraining Himself, no dangerous entanglements for Him to avoid. (For that matter, it is arguable that such separation on His part would mean the item in question would cease to exist!)

Perhaps we could also note that Nachmanides could not be understanding the Sifra as defining qedushah. You cannot translate a word using another conjugation of the same word. “Qadeish es atmekha bemah shemutar lakh — sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you” therefore cannot be his elaboration of a definition. Rather, the Ramban is suggesting the way in which to obey the verse and become holy to someone who already knows how to translate the word.

So, qedushah is commitment to Hashem’s goal, which the Ramban is telling us we can reach by separation from the pursuit of other goals.

All that is left is the “simple” question of defining that goal.

Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction opens (tr. mine):

BLESSED SHALL BE the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker1, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” – that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.

In my opinion, this whole concept is included in Hashem’s mitzvah “Be holy, [for I am Holy].” The Midrash (Leviticus, Emor, ch. 24) says about this verse: “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘for I am Holy’ to teach that My Sanctity is above yours.” And about the foundation of this mitzvah of sanctity the Toras Kohanim [ie the Sifra] has “‘be holy’ – be separate”. Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, explains at length this notion of separation as it is stated in this mitzvah, that it is separation from excessive comfort and pleasure – even if they are actions that are not prohibited to us. In one illustrative statement, he writes that it is possible for a person to be disgusting with [what would otherwise be] the permission of the Torah, see his holy words there.

According to this, it would seem the Midrash is incomprehensible. What relevance does the concept of separation have to being similar to the Holy? The verse tells us with regard to this that His Will is not like this. As it says, “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘For I am holy’ to teach that My sanctity is above Yours.” This explanation is incumbent upon us to understand; in truth there is some similarity in the holiness He expects of us to His [Sanctity], except that His Holiness is more general and inclusive. If we say that the essential idea of the holiness He demands of us (in this mitzvah of “be holy”) is distance from the permissible, this kind of holiness has nothing to do with Him.5

And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose – which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on him. But if he derives benefit from some kind of permissible thing that isn’t needed for the health of his body and soul, that benefit is in opposition to holiness. For in this he is benefiting himself (for that moment as it seems to him), but no one else.

Maimonides would be bothered by this attempt to explain why Hashem created the universe. It requires assuming our mind can contain His “Thought”. (At the Kallah, this topic took on a life of its own.) However, this approach, that Hashem must have created the world to have someone to whom to be good is found in sources as diverse as Rav Saadia Gaon’s “Emunos veDeios” (an Aristotilian from 9th-10th cent Baghdad) to the Ramchal’s “Derekh Hashem” (an Italian Qabbalist, 18th cent CE). Even a Maimonidian, though, can accept the notion that this is how Hashem presents Himself to us; G-d as He appears through his actions as opposed to the unknowable G-d as He is. In any case…

G-d’s goal is to bestow good on others. Which paradoxically doesn’t mean doing everything for us and making our lives perfect, as that would deprive us of a greater good: the ability to emulate His Good and to bestow good to others. Ours and the world’s imperfections are areas where there is good left for us to bestow.

Is this not, after all, what Hillel famously told the prospective convert?

There is another story [this is the third in a sequence] with one non-Jew who came before Shammai. He said to him [the non-Jew to Shammai], “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one leg.” He [Shammai] pushed him [away] with the builder’s  amah-stick which was in his hand.

He [the non-Jew] went before Hillel, who converted him. He [Hillel] said to him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the whole Torah in its entirety, the rest is its explanation. Go learn.”

- Shabbos 55a

What then is the role of the more rite-like mitzvot? If Hashem’s goal for us is to emulate Him in being good to others, why do we need kashrut, Shabbat, mezuzah, etc, etc, etc…? (This topic also took on a life of its own). I suggested two coexisting reasons:

First, such mitzvot teach discipline, they habituate us in making more thoughtful decisions. For example, one doesn’t just see food and eat it, one has to pay attention to what one is eating and how the food is prepared. Second, one needs to develop a relationship with G-d in order to accomplish this goal. One cannot bestow Hashem’s good upon others without knowing what that good is. Such knowledge requires the “go learn”, both from Torah texts and from the experiences provided by the mitzvot that mediate the relationship between man and G-d.

Even relaxation can be sanctified; if one rests for the purpose of being able to continue doing one’s mission in life without burnout. To protect future productivity at this goal by not trying to exceed one’s capacity in the short term.

So, you might have started reading this essay picturing a holy person as a hermit in a cave, an ascetic who spends his day in prayer. Referring back to the title of the post, you might have assumed that separation of holiness is in tension with our duty to nosei be’ol im chaveiro — share the burden of the other, to help him “pull his yoke”. Conflicting values we must balance. This is quite far from Rav Shimon’s definition; the separation isn’t asceticism, rather a very focus on being good to others.

We say in the Amidah: “You are Qadosh, and Your Name [Reputation] is Qadosh, and qedoshim praise You every day. Selah! [For you are G-d, King, Great and Qadosh. –Sepharad] Baruch Atah … the Qadosh G-d.”

It is not coincidence that there are three clauses, and three iterations of the word “Qadosh” in the verse at the heart of Qedushah (Isaiah 6:3). As we quote in the prayer UVa leTzion, Targum Yonatan explains that verse as follows: “Qadosh in the heavens above, the home of His Presence; Qadosh on the earth, the product of His Might; Qadosh forever and ever is Hashem Tzevakos – the whole world is full of the Radiance of His Glory.” The “home of His Glory” is where Hashem is Qadosh. The earth, is where Hashem’s name, how people perceive him, is Qadosh. And the qedoshim, the people who allow others to experience Hashem’s good, fill the world with His Glory – their sanctity is his praise.

According to Rav Shimon Shkop, this blessings becomes, “You are committed to bestow food on others, and your reputation is that of an undivided commitment to bestowing good on others, and people who live entirely for sharing your good with others praise you. Selah!” It is not simply that the class of people who are committed to working for others rather than being self-focused also praise Hashem. It is working for the betterment of others which itself is praise.

There are a number of prayers that require a minyan: the repetition of the amidah, and a class of prayers called davar shebiqdushah — proclamations of holiness. Among these prayers are Barekhu, Qaddish and Qedushah. In case you question whether our final definition of holiness is authentic, notice this: One cannot say the prayer of Qedushah alone.


[1] The Sifra, also called Torat Kohanim, is attributed to Rav (175-247 CE). Rav also founded of the Babylonian academy of Sura, which centuries later produced the Talmud. Rav’s real name, was Abba Akira, Abba the tall. He frequently appears in the Talmud, consistently under his honorific.

[2] Rabbi Shimon Romm was a student of the pre-war Mirrer Yeshiva who participated in their flight from Nazi-occupied Vilna to Shanghai. He became a rabbi in Washington Heights, NY and a rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva University. Thanks to R’ Gil Student for relaying this thought.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 1: Mission – part 1

Shaarei Yosher was written by Rav Shim’on Shkop (1860-October 22, 1939), and the body of the text deals with the principles by which doubt is resolved in court cases and in legislation, and the principles by which halakhah is set.

We will be dealing, however, with the first part of the introduction. The introduction opens with an explanation of the meaning of life and man’s purpose of existence, and then segues from there to a quite usual thanking his benefactors and others who made the work possible. One of his accomplishments is to place their contribution to the work within the context of life as a whole.

“An uninvestigated life is not worth living”, as Socrates said. But a life that is well understood, yet for which one did not define goals, is also of little value. One can find oneself chasing a life’s dream only to realize afterward that all that effort did not accomplish what one is striving for. Before climbing a ladder to get to the top of a building, it pays to check if the ladder climbs the right building. In the ideal, every decision we make each day should be tied back to some larger goal, which in turn fits within an even larger goal, so that every act is meaningful in terms of one’s “Mission Statement”. In that way, every act has meaning.

So, every person should be seeking to define for themselves that “Mission Statement”.

There are many ways that the goal of life is defined within the various streams of Jewish Tradition. One might say they are all aspects of the same basic idea, different descriptions of the same thing. However, the choice of which points one chooses to give more attention will impact one’s day-to-day decision.

Here we will explore Rav Shim’on’s. He opens:

Blessed shall be the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us,
יתברך הבורא ויתעלה היוצר שבראנו בצלמו ובדמות תבניתו, וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו

Note that the initials of the opening four words are Y-HV-H, the Tetragrammaton. A number of texts begin similarly, such as Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and the Ramchal’s Mesilas Yesharim.

The original Hebrew reads: Yisbarakh HaBorei VeYis`alah HaYotzeir. To translate precisely but less readably, “The One Who creates ex nihilo will cause Himself to be blessed, and the One Who gives Form will cause Himself to be exalted.”

This line is more worthy of contemplation than of my simply suggesting a possible interpretation:

  • These words are conjugated in the reflexive. What does it mean that we are saying these are things G-d will do for Himself? And if He will be causing His Own blessing and exultation, what is He waiting for before doing so?
  • Also, why does Rav Shimon pair G-d’s ability to makes something from nothing with the notion of blessing, whereas G-d as the One Who gives those things form and function, using the same term Hebrew uses for a potter, with His being exalted and “uplifted” or “raised” in some way?

Notice that Rav Shimon draws our attention to being betzelem E-lokim, in the “image” of G-d and associates this with eternal life. In order to merit permanence, one must be in the image of the Permanent, and the only things we make that can persist until the end of history are those that fit Hashem’s Plan for the end of history.

In this, Shaarei Yosher follows standard Litvisher thinking, that we are placed in this world to hone our tzelem E-lokim, to perfect ourselves and be whole. (In contrast to Chassidus, for example, which focuses on cleaving to G-d.  For an introduction to this topic, see Aspaqlaria for Lekh Lekha 5757), and for a more complete set of meanderings, see the Forks in the Hashkafic Road category of this blog.)

But what is the tzelem E-lokim? How do we define wholeness and perfection? Effectively, all we have said so far is that our task in life is to become as good as possible at accomplishing His Goals, and to internalize them to make them ours. “הוא היה אומר: עשה רצונו כרצונך, כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו — He [Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi] would say: Make His Will like your will, so that He will make your will like His Will.” (Avos 2:4)

We haven’t really found our Mission Statement until we understand how G-d expects us to understand and further His Goals. Then we can make ourselves and our actions in His “Image”.

That’s the question for the next shiur.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 1: Mission – part 2

… so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were).

שיהיה אדיר חפצנו, להיטיב עם זולתנו, ליחיד ולרבים בהוה ובעתיד בדמות הבורא כביכול,

We saw that Rav Shimon defines the goal of life in terms of perfection of one’s image of G-d, and here we see what image Hashem gives to emulate — to be good to others.

I believe Rav Shimon mentioned “to individuals and to the masses” is because these are often very different temperaments. The person who quietly slips money to a neighbor who is out of work is a very different kind of giving than the activist who organized annual rallies to free Soviet Jewry. We need to look at the nature of giving on both levels: one-on-one and in terms of communal work.

Second, Rav Shimon Shkop speaks of “in the present and in the future”. It is possible that perhaps giving too much now will hamper our ability to give in the future. We need to balance our production with developing our capacity to produce. Rav Shimon will speak more about this later.

Last, this segment concludes by connected this idea back to yesterday’s point. To be a bestower of good to others is to be in G-d’s “Image”.


שוב מעשה בנכרי אחד שבא לפני שמאי אמר לו גיירני ע”מ שתלמדני כל התורה כולה כשאני עומד על רגל אחת דחפו באמת הבנין שבידו בא לפני הלל גייריה אמר לו דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד זו היא כל התורה כולה ואידך פירושה הוא זיל גמור:

There is another story [this is the third in a sequence] with one non-Jew who came before Shammai. He said to him [the non-Jew to Shammai], “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one leg.” He [Shammai] pushed him [away] with the builder’s  amah-stick which was in his hand.

He [the non-Jew] went before Hillel, who converted him. He [Hillel] said to him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the whole Torah in its entirety, the rest is its explanation. Go learn.”

- Shabbos 55a

Sidenote: The prospective convert’s expression “while I stand on one leg” is usually taken to mean a measure of time. That he wanted Shammai to explain the entire Torah fast enough that the questioner wouldn’t yet lose balance standing one one leg. However, “regel” can also be a pillar or foundation point. He could have been asking to be taught the whole Torah in a way that gave him a single core principle. Which Hillel did.

There are two basic directions in which explanations to this story take, both given by Rashi (ad loc):

דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד: ריעך וריע אביך אל תעזוב (משלי כז) זה הקב”ה אל תעבור על דבריו שהרי עליך שנאוי שיעבור חבירך על דבריך

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend: “Do not abandon your Friend and your father’s Friend” (Proverbs 27) — this is the Holy One blessed be He. Do not violate His words, for it would be hateful to you if your friend would violate your words.

ל”א חבירך ממש כגון גזלה גנבה ניאוף ורוב המצות:

Another understanding: Your friend literally. Such as robbery, burglary and most of the mitzvos.

Rav Shimon would clearly take the second approach in this gemara. Everything revolves around the interpersonal. I recently encountered a similar idea about conversion. Here is how the gemara describes introducing the prospective convert to Jewish life:

אם אומר יודע אני ואיני כדאי מקבלין אותו מיד ומודיעין אותו מקצת מצות קלות ומקצת מצות חמורות ומודיעין אותו עון לקט שכחה ופאה ומעשר עני ומודיעין אותו ענשן של מצות אומרים לו הוי יודע שעד שלא באת למדה זו אכלת חלב אי אתה ענוש כרת חללת שבת אי אתה ענוש סקילה ועכשיו אכלת חלב ענוש כרת חללת שבת ענוש סקילה וכשם שמודיעין אותו ענשן של מצות כך מודיעין אותו מתן שכרן אומרים לו הוי יודע שהעולם הבא אינו עשוי אלא לצדיקים וישראל בזמן הזה אינם יכולים לקבל לא רוב טובה ולא רוב פורענות ואין מרבין עליו ואין מדקדקין עליו קיבל מלין אותו מיד…

[If the convert, after the sages attempt to dissuade him] says, “I know, and yet I am not worthy”, they accept him immediately,

  • and inform him of a small portion of the minor and major commandments;
  • and they inform him of the sin of [keeping] the leqet, shiqechah, pei’ah and ma’aser sheini [gifts every farmer must leave for the poor];
  • and they inform him of the punishment for mitzvos … [examples ellided];
  • And just as they inform him of the punishment for [violating] the mitzvos, so too they inform him of the reward of the commandments. They say to him: Know that that the World-to-Come is kept in store only for the righteous, and that Israel at this time is not able to bear too much goodness or too much punishment.

But they do not increase upon him, and are not exact with him.  If he accepts, these ideas circumcise him immediately…

- Yevamos 47a-b

Notice, the convert is taught a sense of the lifestyle of the Jew, the laws of sharing one’s crops, and the magnitude of what he is about to accept in terms of reward and punishment. The broad picture — “they do not increase upon him, and are not exact with him”. Out of place would be singling out the mitzvos of sharing one’s crop through leqet, shikhechah, pei’ah and ma’aser ani — if it were not for Hillel’s point. The convert is taught that all of Torah stands upon such sharing!

(ויקרא יט) ואהבת לרעך כמוך.  רבי עקיבה אומר זהו כלל גדול בתורה.  בן עזאי אומר (בראשית ה) זה ספר תולדות אדם זה כלל גדול מזה.

“And you shall love your friends as yourself [I am Hashem].” (Vayiqra 19). Rabbi Aqiva said, “This is a great principle in the Torah. Ben Azai said, “‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’ (Genesis 5) — this is a greater principle than that.”

-Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4 (vilna 30b)

R’ Aqiva and Ben Azzai argue over which verse is the one foundation. Rabbi Aqiva suggests one that applies only to people who qualify as “friends” (perhaps Jews, perhaps only observant Jews, perhaps also non-Jews who observe the 7 laws of Noah). Ben Azzzai instead says the entire Torah is founded on a verse that emphasized the fraternal bonds of all humanity — we are all children of Adam and Eve.

This poses a fundamental question: How can the single basis of the entire Torah be described as being created “in His ‘Image’ and in the likeness of His ‘Structure’…, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others… in imitation of the Creator (as it were)” (as Rav Shimon puts it)? Why then do we have all these halakhos about prayer and holidays, kashrus and Shabbos… in short, all of the mitzvos that mediate the relationship between man and G-d or that otherwise do not involve other people?

We will explore that question later. For now, we can note that Rav Shim’on’s approach is well sourced.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 1: Mission – part 3

For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed)[1], [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” (Devarim 28:9)
שכל מה שברא ויצר היה רצונו יתברך רק להיטיב עם הנבראים, כן רצונו ית׳ שנהלך בדרכיו כאמור “והלכת בדרכיו”,

Now Rav Shimon Shkop explains how bestowing good on others is the essence of being in the Image of G-d.

Why did Hashem create the universe? The truth is, we can’t ever know; humans are incapable of knowing the “Mind” of the Creator — His “Thoughts” are Infinite, Transcendent, and do not resemble our trains of thought that evolve within time.  What we can try to answer is: What did Hashem show us of why He created the universe? What does G-d want us to emulate?

Well, whose need does creation fill? It can’t be Hashem’s need, as His Perfection precludes His having any needs. Hashem thus had to be addressing the created’s needs. Creation is therefore (again, to the extent we can understand it) an act that is purely the bestowal of good on others — “[E]verything He created and formed was … only to be good to the creations.” So too His Will is that we walk in His ways.

The Ramchal phrases it thus, “It is the nature of good to have someone to whom to be good.” (Derech Hashem 1:2:1) And centuries earlier, on the other side of the qabbalah-rationalism spectrum Rav Saadia Ga’on reached the same conclusion in Emunos veDei’os. The human being can be defined as a receptacle for emanations of Divine Good and sustenance, in shorter and therefore useful jargon: “a keli for shefa“. Simply and personally put, you and I exist so that G-d would have a recipient of His Good.

And yet, there is much unhappiness in this world. Hashem could have insured that receiving shefa (emanations of Divine Good and sustenance) would make us happy, but He didn’t. While it is important to note the difference between bestowing good and making happy, that isn’t enough to explain why this would be true. Suffering, even if it is in some cosmic sense “good”, is a lack of goodness in how that cosmos was created. After all, we are speaking of the Bestower who defined the emotion of happiness, and created within us the mechanisms that generate it. He could have chosen to make the two identical, that true good and only true good would make us happy. Man is therefore lacking in two ways: we are not receiving His full goodness, and amongst that Divine Good that we lack is that very union between what we want and what is good for us.

We are left with a dilemma. We would conclude that Hashem created imperfect recepticals, and that is why we are not receiving the full shefa. However, we would need to explain why a Perfect Creator would make beings that don’t perfectly fulfill His purpose for them.

In the Torah, Hashem introduces the idea of creating people with the words “let Us make man in Our Image, like our Semblance” (Bereishis 1:26). The ultimate good the Creator has to share with us is His own “nature”, the gift of being free-willed, having the capacity to make meaningful decisions, to create, and to use that creation to address the needs of others.

There is unhappiness in the world so that we have the opportunity to give. As Rav Shimon puts it, Hashem created everything so that He could be good to them and part of that is that “His Will is that we walk in His ways”. Counter-intuitively, the creation of a universe that has no lacks would actually lack the greatest good — the opportunity to be in Hashem’s Image, to be a giver.

Eav Eliyahu E. Dessler takes a similar position on what it means to be in the “Image” of G-d. See the following, from the beginning of his “Qunterus haChessed” in Michtav meiEliyahu vol. 1:

When the Almighty created human beings He made them capable of both giving and taking. The faculty of giving is a sublime power; it is one of the attributes of the blessed Creator of all things. He is the Giver par excellence; His mercy, His bounty and His goodness extend to all His creatures. His giving is pure giving for He takes nothing in return. He can take nothing for He lacks nothing, as the verse says, “…If you are righteous what do you give to Him?”

Our service to Him is not for His need but for our own, since we need a means of expressing our gratitude to Him.

Man has been granted this sublime power of giving, enabling him too to be merciful, to bestow happiness, to give of himself. “G-d created man in his own image.”


[1] (All honorifics, such as “may it be blessed” and “may His memory be a blessing” appear in the original as acronyms of common idioms that the reader could read without losing their train of thought. Since this is impossible in translation, I chose to hereafter omit them. For similar reasons, “Moses our teacher” or “Moses our teacher, peace be upon him”, I usually rendered simply “Moses” for readability.)

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 1: Mission – conclusion

[To repeat the first clause of the sentence:
So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” (Devarim 28:9)]
כן רצונו ית׳ שנהלך בדרכיו כאמור “והלכת בדרכיו”,
– that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.
… היינו שנהיה אנחנו בחירי יצוריו, מגמתנו תמיד להקדיש כוחותינו הגופניים והרוחניים לטובת הרבים, כפי ערכנו,

Here Rav Shimon Shkop introduces the notion of qedushah, holiness, and applies it to our topic. Bestowing good to others is not only the emulation of the Creator (who created only for the benefit of His creatures), but it is also the essence of qedushah, holiness.

What is holiness? So far all we see is that holiness is defined by dedication; dedication to doing Hashem’s work of bestowing good.

When the Torah speaks of taharah,  the proposition is “mi-”, from, e.g. “vetiharo min hatzora’as”– and he [the kohein] purifies him from the [tum'ah associated with the spirito-somatic illness,] tzora’as“. What is taharah? While many object to translating it as “spiritual purity”, the word is used to describe the “pure gold” of the menorah, “zahav tahor”. Taharah is freeing the soul from a kind of adulteration, just as it describes gold that is free of impurities.  The tahor soul is one that is free from the habits and effects of living within an animal body.

On the other hand, qedushah is about pull. The golden tzitz on the kohein gadol’s forehead reads “qadesh Lashem”. Qedushah is being set aside for a given purpose. The wedding formula, “Hereby you are mequdeshes li…, committed to me…” uses the term where the “to” isn’t Hashem’ purpose. But in usual usage, if the “le-” is not provided, it means creation’s Ultimate Purpose, “for My Honor, lekhvodi, I have created it”.

Qedushah is thus being dedicated purpose of bestowing Hashem’s good to others.

This is Rav Shimon’s segue into the next topic, which I will be labeling “sec. 2: Sanctity”.


What we have established in this first section:

  • Man is created in the image of G-d and to emulate Him.
  • Hashem needs nothing, and thus the universe could only have been created for our sake. (Even the unpleasant parts, since without them have no opportunities to imitate and partake of His Ultimate Good.)
  • Therefore, just as He acts for the good of others, emulating Him means bestowing good on others — and wanting to.
  • Bestowing good must include both relating to others as individuals as well as a communal focus.
  • This includes both doing good in the present and preparing to be able to be good in the future.
  • Qedushah is defined as our commitment to this goal.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 1

In my opinion, this whole concept is included in Hashem’s mitzvah “Be holy, [for I am Holy].” The Midrash (Leviticus, Emor, ch. 24) says about this verse: “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘for I am Holy’ to teach that My Sanctity is above yours.”
ולדעתי כל ענין זה נכלל במצות ה׳ של “קדושים תהיו”, דהנה במדרש ויקרא פרק כ״ד אמור על מקרא זה: “יכול כמוני? תלמוד לאמר ‘כי קדוש אני’, קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם”,

Rav Shimon already wrote that our job is to bestow good on others, in imitation of the purpose of creation, and used the term qedushah to refer to the commitment of our abilities to that goal.

Here R’ Shimon adds that what we call “commitment” with respect to people is different in kind that Hashem’s commitment. Hashem is absolutely One. He has only One Goal. Purity of purpose is inherent.

For people, our natural state is to be in a swirl of motivations, “tov vara be’irbuvya – good and evil in mixture”. Perfect purity of purpose is an unreachable goal to continually strive strive for.

Thus, Hashem adds “for I am Holy” — that His Sanctity is above ours.

(See also the connection between the sin of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge and this element of the human condition I drew in my earlier post “The origins of imperfection“.)

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 2

And about the foundation of this mitzvah of sanctity the Toras Kohanim has “‘be holy’ – be separate”. Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, explains at length this notion of separation as it is stated in this mitzvah, that it is separation from excessive comfort and pleasure – even if they are actions that are not prohibited to us. In one illustrative statement, he writes that it is possible for a person to be disgusting with [what would otherwise be] the permission of the Torah, see his holy words there.
וביסוד מצוה זו של קדושה איתא בתורת כהנים: “‘קדושים תהיו’ – פרושים תהיו” ,והרמב״ן ז״ל בפירושו על התורה האריך לבאר ענין פרישות האמור במצוה זו שהוא להתרחק מן הנאות ותענוגים יתירים, אף על פי שהם מעשים שאינן אסורים לנו, ובציור מבליט אומר שאפשר לאדם להיות נבל ברשות התורה ועין שם בדבריו הקדושים

Rav Shimon Shkop defined qedushah in terms of commitment to the cause of providing good to others. So he has to address this medrash (Toras Kohanim, a/k/a the Sifra, which predates the mishnah) that appears to be defining the mitzvah of being holy as separation. In particular, the Ramban’s (much quoted) further explanation, that this is separation is from things which are permitted by the black-letter of the law, but are still disgusting or self-belittling behaviors.

Even if we find a way to say that both definitions boil down to the same thing, there is a fundamental difference in attitude between the formulations, one that would lead to differences in action:

The Sifra could be taken to mean that holiness inheres in withdrawal from the pleasures of this world, that it’s associated with austerity and asceticism.

Rav Shimon is drawing a picture of holiness that is in action, not in cloistered retreat. It is in elevating the lot of others, not an other-worldly lifestyle.

The rest of this section is dedicated to showing how his conclusion is actually the more correct understanding of the verse and medrash.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 3

According to this, it would seem the Midrash is incomprehensible.1- What relevance does the concept of separation have to being similar to the Holy? The verse tells us with regard to this that His Will is not like this. As it says, “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘For I am holy’ to teach that My sanctity is higher than yours.”
ועל פי זה לכאורה דברי המדרש אינם מובנים, איך שייך בענין פרישות להתדמות להקב״ה שעל זה השמיענו הכתוב שלא כן רצונו ית׳, שהרי אומר “יכול כמוני? תלמוד לאמר ‘כי קדוש אני’, קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם”,

Rav Shimon’s defense of the notion that holiness is a stance of action, in light of a medrash in the Sifra which, as the Ramban puts it, says that “be holy” entails “separation from things that are permitted to you” opens with two questions that show the medrash and Ramban cannot be taken at face value.

First, the concept of separation has nothing to do with the Almighty.

Speaking from a theological perspective for a moment, if Hashem separated Himself from something, would that thing continue to exist? For that matter, would the time itself in which He is supposedly separate from it exist either?

As we saw, the issue of commitment is inherently different when it comes to people as when it comes to Hashem yisbarakh. Hashem is One. He has One Will, One Goal, and thus one Purpose that He is thus fully committed to.

Not only doesn’t Hashem have other side-interests, He does not even separate from those things people do that are at odds with His goal. In Tomer Devorah ch. 1, Rav Moshe Cordevero explains the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy as described in Mikhah 7:17-20. On the first middah, “מי א-ל כמוך — Who is a G-d like You”, he writes (tr unknown):

This refers to the Holy One, Blessed is He, as a patient King Who bears insult in a manner that is above human understanding. For behold, without doubt, there is nothing hidden from His providence. Furthermore, there is no moment when man is not nourished and does not exist by virtue of the divine power which flows down upon him. It follows that no man ever sins against God without the divine affluence pouring into him at that very moment, enabling him to exist and to move his limbs. Despite the fact that he uses it for sin, that power is not withheld from him in any way. But the Holy One, Blessed is He, bears this insult and continues to empower him to move his limbs even though he uses the power in that moment for sin and perversity offending the Holy One, Blessed is He, who, nonetheless, suffer it. Nor must you say that He cannot withhold that good, God forfend, for it lies in His power in the moment it takes to say the word ‘moment’ to wither the sinner’s hand or foot, as he did to Jeroboam (Melachim I 8:4). And yet though it lies in His power to arrest divine flow – and He might have said: ‘If you sin against Me do so under your own power, not with Mine’ – He does not, on this account, withold His goodness from man, bearing the insult, pouring out His power and bestowing of His goodness. This is to be insulted and bear the insult, beyond words….
מורה על היות הקב”ה מלך נעלב, סובל עלבון מה שלא יכילהו רעיון. הרי אין דבר נסתר מהשגחתו בלי ספק, ועוד אין רגע שלא יהיה האדם נזון ומתקיים מכח עליון השופע עליו, והרי תמצא שמעולם לא חטא אדם נגדו שלא יהיה הוא באותו הרגע ממש שופע שפע קיומו ותנועת אבריו, עם היות שהאדם חוטא בכח ההוא לא מנעו ממנו כלל אלא סובל הקב”ה עלבון כזה להיות משפיע בו כח תנועות אבריו, והוא מוציא אותו כח באותו רגע בחטא ועון ומכעיס והקב”ה סובל. ולא תאמר שאינו יכול למנוע ממנו הטוב ההוא ח”ו שהרי בכחו ברגע כמימרא ליבש ידיו ורגליו כעין שעשה לירבעם, ועכ”ז שהכח בידו להחזיר הכח הנשפע ההוא והיה לו לומר כיון שאתה חוטא נגדי תחטא בשלך לא בשלי, לא מפני זה מנע טובו מן האדם אלא סבל עלבון, והשפיע הכח והטיב לאדם טובו. הרי זה עלבון וסבלנות מה שלא יסופר…

Divine Compassion includes giving us the free will to use the very existence and power Hashem bestows upon us in rebellion against him, and yet Hashem continues to it grant us. There truly is no concept of separation — not even from our ulterior aims — with regard to Hashem.

In contrast, within the human condition, a conflict of motivations is not only possible, but a constant. Until Bereishis 1:4, “וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱ-לֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ — and G-d separated between the light and the darkness”, Chazal say that until then “אור וחשך משתמשין בערבוביא — light and darkness were used in a mixture” (c.f. Rashi ad loc.) Humanity then violates this separation, when Chavah and Adam ate the fruit bein hashemashos, at the end of the sixth day (Sanhedrin 38b). A period of time when day and night — light and darkness overlap. The fruit was of the “עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע — tree of knowledge of good and evil.” (Bereishis 2:9) Not knowledge of good and of evil, but thought that was good-and-evil, mixed. And ever since then, every decision man makes is an irbuviah, the product of an inseperable blend of motives.

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, was once diagnosed with a serious illness; he needed a major medical center. He was given information about each of his choices, and asked which one he would go to. The Alter chose the hospital in St. Petersburg. Upon his return, someone from the community who had noticed that he hadn’t been around asked where he had been. The Alter replied that he had been to St. Petersburg. The man asked why. He answered, “I went to see a push-button umbrella.”

His students asked the Alter of Slabodka why he said this. After all, the decision to go to St. Petersburg was made after hearing all his options, much consideration and deliberation about which was the best hospital for his illness. Why did he say it was about an umbrella?

The Alter explained that a short while earlier, he was traveling around the region on yeshiva business and had arrived in St. Petersburg. He was amazed by this new invention he saw there, an umbrella that opens with the push of the umbrella. Laying in his hospital bed, the Alter realized that the experience colored his decision. A component of the decision was his association of the city with the latest invention and his desire to see them.

Irbuvia. A constant mixture of emotions. No good deed lacks some selfish side-motivation, no matter how small. Which is why many shuls require appeals to publicly announce donations in order to raise enough money to operate. The question is how to separate out the holy and the ideal among our motives rather than be moved by a mixture of good and evil.

So, a medrash addressing the words in the Torah, “be holy for I am Holy” can’t be saying that holiness itself is defined by separation. That explanation fails on the second clause — Hashem needs no such separation, and never does indeed separate. Rather, Rav Shimon will explain, it is giving separation as the means by which implement the mitzvah.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 4

2- It is more difficult to understand “My sanctity is higher than yours.” This explanation is incumbent upon us to understand – in truth there is some similarity in the holiness He expects of us to His [Holiness], except that His Holiness is more general and inclusive. If we say that the essential idea of the holiness He demands of us (in this mitzvah of “be holy”) is distance from the permissible, that kind of holiness has nothing to do with Him.
וביותר קשה להבין מה שמסיק “קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם”, דבמובן זה עלינו להבין, דבאמת יש דמיון בהקדושה שה׳ דורש מאתנו לקדושתו ית׳, אלא שקדושתו יותר כוללת ומקפת, ואם נאמר דעיקד מובן הקדושה, שה׳ דורש מאתנו במצוה זו של “קדושים תהיו” להתרחק מן המותרות, קדושה זו אינה מתיחסת כלל לה׳ ית׳.

Rav Shimon is raising objections to the naive understanding that the Sifra and the Ramban are defining holiness as separation. His first objection was that the pasuq in question continues, “ki qadosh Ani — for I am holy” and G-d’s sanctity could not possibly involve separation.

Here Rav Shimon Shkop furthers the question by discussing the next part of the medrash. We are supposed to be holy in imitation of HQBH (“for I am holy”) and yet as the Sifra emphasizes, “My sanctity is higher than yours.” G-d’s sanctity is more general and inclusive, ours a mere shadow. So, if the separation from the permissible, austerity and asceticism, were actually the definition of the qedushah we strive for, then G-d’s sanctity would necessarily not only involve separation, but be an absolute and total separation.

Rav Shim’on’s point is also implied in the Ramban’s wording. The medrash says “קדושים תהיו – פרושים תהיו — ‘be holy’ – separate yourselves”. Had the Ramban thought this was a definition, he would not have used the word qodesh; a definition that includes the word you are trying to explain is worthless. And yet the Ramban does so, when he includes a quote of the gemara’s comment on this verse “קדש את עצמך במותר לך — sanctify yourself with that which is permissable to you.

So, the Sifra is telling us that in order to be holy, we much separate from something. But holiness isn’t the separation itself. Next Rav Shim’on will relate this idea back to his definition of qedushah, that it is commitment to Hashem’s goal of bestowing His good on others.